Weber State football is back. Wildcat fans can see the reigning Big Sky Champions return to the gridiron after a fall 2020 with no games played in the autumn months, and the Wildcats claimed another Big Sky title in the six-game spring season.
“The energy’s high. Everybody’s ready to get going and start working and pick up where we left off in the spring,” senior linebacker Conner Mortensen said.
On the sidelines, the Wildcats added Gary Andersen, former head coach for Utah State University, Southern Utah University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Oregon State University.
Between the lines, the team has almost all of their players returning.
“Today was different because we returned 15 fifth-year seniors,” head coach Jay Hill said after the first day of fall camp.
The defense, which was ranked No. 1 in the Big Sky Conference, returns a group of senior leadership led by Mortensen, who earned the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Award in the 2021 spring season along with a spot on the All-Big Sky First Team.
Mortensen ended the regular season with 44 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, an interception and a sack.
Senior linebacker Sherwin Lavaka finished the season third on the team in two categories, recording 26 total tackles and two sacks. The Kearns, Utah, native earned a spot at inside linebacker on the All-Big Sky Second Team following the spring season.
Anchoring the defense up front is 300-pound senior D-lineman Jared Schiess, who grabbed 1.5 sacks and 17 total tackles in the spring.
“There’s guys on the defense I’ve been with for five, almost six years. We’re so close; we’re like brothers out there,” Mortensen said. “We know everybody’s going to do their job, and we’re going to hold each other accountable.”
Roaming the defensive backfield for the Wildcats is senior safety Preston Smith, who led the Wildcats with three interceptions roaring around the secondary in the spring, and ripped the quarterback to the ground for a sack.
The Mesquite High School graduate registered 21 total tackles — 16 of them solo. He was named First Team All-Big Sky along with fellow defensive backs sophomore Eddie Heckard and junior Desmond Williams.
Leading the way with five players on the Big Sky Conference First Team Defense, the Wildcats look to be even better this fall with all of them returning with wisdom and experience.
“The expectations get higher every year. We’re confident that every year our team has been better and better,” Mortensen said. “Unfortunately we couldn’t get as far as we would’ve liked in the spring, but we have the expectations to win a national championship.”
Championship expectations have been a yearly occurrence under coach Hill.
The reigning Big Sky Coach of the Year has turned the Wildcats into a perennial FCS powerhouse, and the team reached its highest FCS ranking ever when Weber State was No. 2 in the nation this past spring.
The spring season proved valuable to the offense, especially freshman quarterback Bronson Barron who was returning from a two-year religious mission.
His time off didn’t seem to be an issue as he hit the gridiron throwing in his first game wearing the purple and white, leading the Wildcats to a 49–21 win over Idaho State with four touchdowns and 312 yards through the air this past March.
“Bronson grew a ton in the spring, and the sky’s the limit for him,” Mortensen said of the freshman signal-caller.
Although he broke his wrist in the second game, he returned in just eight days and ended his season with seven touchdowns, two interceptions and 1,071 yards passing.
“To not play football for a couple years and to come back and get six games of experience,” Barron said. “You can’t emulate that in another way.”
The offense will be in its first fall season with offensive coordinator Matt Hammer calling the plays. Hammer led the Wildcats offense in the spring to an average of 27.5 points per game.
The Wildcats were up 14–0 against Northern Arizona, but won the game 28–23 on a last-second Hail Mary.
“We’d get leads, then we didn’t step on the pedal, and we need to do that,” Barron said.
In the first round of the FCS Playoffs the Wildcats built a 14–0 lead, but the game got away from them and they fell 34–31.
“Offensively we have to score points in the red zone. That playoff game really helped us understand that we can’t let teams hang around with us,” Barron said.
Weber State’s wide-receiving core will pose threats to opposing defenses and no doubt put points on the board.
All-Big Sky First Team kick and punt returner Rashid Shaheed, along with Ty MacPherson, David Ames and Devon Cooley, returns this fall.
MacPherson led the team with 395 receiving yards, while Shaheed and tight end Justin Malone caught three touchdowns each and made dynamic plays all over the field.
Shaheed has antagonized Wildcat opponents and the Big Sky Conference for years with his lightning speed. His five career kickoff return touchdowns nears an all-time FCS record.
Transfer junior receiver Randal Grimes from USC and junior transfer tight end Jordan Allen out of Tennessee join the Wildcats and add depth and playmaking ability.
“Both of those guys are both good dudes. Randall brings a lot of joy and happiness in the locker room, and Jordan’s a hard worker,” Barron said.
The running back group, which plowed through blockers and moved the chains for the Wildcats last season, includes First Team All-Big Sky Josh Davis, Second Team All-Big Sky Dontae McMillan and senior Dave Jones.
Last season, Davis rushed for 386 yards while averaging 5.8 yards per carry and scored a touchdown, while McMillan ran for 376 yards and put the ball into the end zone five times.
“We have the potential to be really good, great actually, so we just got to come out and play 11-man football,” Barron said. “Once we get all of us executing together, we’re going to be dangerous.”
Weber State was selected to finish first place in the Big Sky with seven first place votes in the Preseason Coaches Poll. Montana and Eastern Washington each had two first-place votes that secured them at the No. 2 spot.
The Wildcats aren’t buying into the hype, and instead look back at the spring as motivation for what they can do in the upcoming season.
“It’s like an itch we can’t quite scratch until we get to that point again, but it’s just fuel for the fire,” Mortensen said.
The team will take a short bus ride to open the season at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a showdown with the Utah Utes on Sept. 2, before heading to St. George on Sept. 1 to face Dixie State.
The Wildcats return to Ogden for the home-opening battle of FCS powerhouses against James Madison on Sept. 18.
“We’ve got a great schedule combined. We get to open at the University of Utah, and then we’ve got James Madison, who’s one of the top one or two teams in the country,” Hill said. “This is a really good schedule for us and a great home schedule.”